The victory in 2019 of Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in Istanbul’s mayoral election put an end to the 25-year dominance of the city by conservatives. Since then, İmamoğlu has come in for strong criticism from Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is perhaps unsurprising, since Istanbul is where the current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his career as mayor in 1994.

Talking Walls project (Credit: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality website) 

One of İmamoğlu’s more contentious decisions, however, has been to remove the “wall landscapes”: vertical gardens that were planted along highways by a former mayor, Kadir Topbaş, in 2010. İmamoğlu’s “talking walls” project aims to replace these with murals, but the proposal has sparked fierce debate. 

A graffiti artist participating in the Talking Walls project (Credit: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality website)

Yasin Çağatay Seçkin, head of Istanbul’s parks department, said in a statement that the annual cost of landscaping the walls was 12 million liras and that the money could be spent more effectively elsewhere. 

“According to our calculations, we could green an area of 400,000 square metres for the same amount of money that we would spend on 45,000 square metres of wall landscapes,” he said. 

Mehmet Emin Birpınar, deputy minister of environment and urbanisation, disputed Seçkin’s claim about how much the walls cost, saying it was closer to 8.6 million lira, or just 0.7 of the city’s annual budget for parks and gardens.

And others argue that living walls benefit the environment, reduce road traffic noise and improve the look of cities. 

Tevfik Göksu, AKP group deputy chair, said the decision to remove them showed a “lack of vision … while the world seeks to germinate [plants on] roofs and walls, we are tearing them down”. 

However, the environmental benefit of vertical gardens is a matter of debate. Bilge Serin, an urban planner and an academic at the UK’s Glasgow University, told Inside Turkey that they were a form of “greenwashing” – a superficial attempt to appear environmentally-friendly.

Urban planner Bilge Serin (Credit: Her personal archive)

“In reality, wall landscapes’ contribution to the environment is either absent or relatively low, and the application and maintenance costs are quite high,” Serin said.

For Ahmet Turan Köksal, an architect and writer, Istanbul’s wall landscapes are “like the lace on the television in the living room: no meaning other than being an ornament”. 

Köksal said that the frequent maintenance and changing of flower displays on the walls caused traffic jams. 

“Vertical gardens make sense only when they are sustainable. Instead of ornamental flowers, the structure of leaves, branches and flowers should be easy to maintain and cost-effective,” Köksal continued. “Grass that needs to be constantly watered and mowed is also a significant liability: these kinds of ornaments are meaningless.”

Lecturer İdil Kanter Otçu (Credit: Her personal archive)

İdil Kanter Otçu, a lecturer in the department of landscape architecture at Ankara University, said that vertical gardens can make a contribution to the environment, but high costs are a risk. 

“Vertical gardens can use many different techniques. The ones in our country, especially Istanbul, use imported products with high maintenance coasts.” 

This, Otçu said, did not support the development of green urban infrastructure. 

The Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Landscape Architects shared Otçu’s position. In a press release, the organisation said that because of climate change, Turkey no longer had sufficient rainfall to support vertical gardens without unsustainable maintenance and irrigation costs. It suggested that a focus on “active” green areas, such as parks and gardens, would be preferable.

Supporters of the wall landscapes argue that they help reduce air pollution. Birpınar, the deputy environment minister, claimed that research showed that a vertical garden of 60 square metres could filter out 15 kg of heavy metal pollutants from 40,000 kg of exhaust fumes, and contribute to air quality by absorbing toxic volatile organic compounds.

Aytül Temiz, a forest engineer and garden designer (Credit: Her personal archive)

Aytül Temiz, a forest engineer and garden designer, said that placing vertical gardens beside roads, as opposed to concrete walls, positively affected people’s mental health. But she acknowledged that they had less impact on noise reduction and air quality. 

An example of a successful vertical garden, Temiz said, could be seen on the wall of Edgware Road underground station in London, UK. 

“This enormous green wall houses 14,000 plants from 15 different species. It cleans the air and contributes to urban biodiversity. But there are not many examples like this beside our roads.”

Criticism from AKP officials that the new mayor threatens Istanbul’s green spaces is somewhat ironic, since the impact of construction works was a common topic of complaint under previous administrations. The Gezi Park protests of 2013 were triggered by plans to build over a green space near the city’s central Taksim Square. Now, AKP-supporting social media accounts bemoan the destruction of vertical gardens, while A Haber, a pro-government television channel, recently complained that “landscapes, the symbol of Istanbul, are being removed”. 

In October, İmamoğlu responded to the criticism via his official Twitter account. “We came to solve problems, not to hoodwink with artificial landscapes,” he wrote.